Pope Francis Troubled by Current Culture of Depopulation

Here’s the headline from a recent article in America Magazine: “Why Pope Francis is worried about declining birth rates.”

The article was penned in response to recent remarks by Pope Francis to the Association for Subsidiarity and the Modernization of Local Authorities (ASMEL), in which the Holy Father expressed his concerns about the decreasing birth rate in many nations.

In these remarks, the pope referenced a “culture of depopulation.” As he has in the past, Pope Franics linked this culture to the growing trend in which couples choose a pet over starting a family. “People do not have children — it is easier to have a dog,” he told attendees at the meeting. However, “We need children. In Italy, Spain … there is a need for children.”

“We must take the problem of the birth rate seriously, take it seriously because the future of the country is at stake there, isn’t it?” he added. “The future is at stake. Having children is a duty to survive, to go forward. Think about this. This is not an advertisement for a birth agency, no, no; but I want to emphasize this: the drama of the birth rate. This must be considered very seriously.”


Italy’s Population is Shrinking Rapidly

As for the question asked by America’s headline — i.e., why is the pope so worried? — the answer couldn’t be any more obvious: because demographic trends are deeply, deeply worrisome.

In his remarks on the subject, Pope Francis often singles out Italy for criticism, pointing to the demographic realities in Italy as a bell-weather for a wider population crisis. It’s not hard to see why. Italy’s birthrate has plummeted in recent decades. The overall birth rate is currently far below replacement level, at 1.24 children born per woman. The result is that there are 12 deaths for every seven births, meaning that population is already rapidly shrinking.

Living in Italy, Pope Francis must see signs of this demographic free-fall everywhere. Gone are the large, rambunctious Italian families of yore. Whereas the Italian churches used to be not just spiritual, but also cultural and familial centers, most of them are now eerily empty. No longer do Italy’s parish churches see the stream of marriages and baptisms, followed by gigantic parties with the numerous extended families, as famously seen in movies like The Godfather. This isn’t just because Italians have lost the faith — although many of them have — but because many couples simply aren’t getting married and aren’t welcoming children.


Worldwide Demographic Bomb Makes Headlines

However, in reality Italy is merely one of a host of nations in which the sight of a baby, or a group of children, is something remarkable. Consider just a few headlines from recent months: “‘Natalist injunctions’: Macron sparks uproar with call to revive France’s birth rate,” reports France 24. The article notes that the French President recently called for a “demographic rearmament,” in response to France’s birth rate hitting its lowest level since the Second World War. The President suggested that the country explore ways to increase births.

In response to Macron’s remarks, however, a host of leftist organizations and politicians lambasted the president for seeking to “control” women’s bodies. The article concludes by noting that shortly after Macron’s remarks, French politicians took steps to insert the “right” to abortion into the country’s constitution.

Are there words to describe such suicidal madness as that?

Meanwhile, a few weeks ago Time Magazine ran the following article: “South Korea Expects Its Already-World’s-Lowest Fertility Rate to Keep Falling.” South Korea’s birth rate problems make Italy’s look mild by comparison. As is well known, the average replacement birth rate is about 2.1 children born per woman. In South Korea the birth rate has plunged to just .72 children born per woman! And South Korean officials expect that birth rate to continue falling, to as low as .65 in coming years.

“Earlier this month,” reads the Time article, “finance minister nominee Choi Sang-mok likened the dangers of South Korea’s demographics to the iceberg that sank the Titanic, saying it’s already too late to reverse the trend simply via fertility rates.”

One could go on and on: “Plunging fertility rates are creating problems for Latin America,” reads an article published in The Economist on January 18. “China’s population drops for second year, with record low birth rate,” reads another published the following day, on January 18. “Taiwan’s plunging birth rate not just about money, but also gender expectations,” reads another, reporting that Taiwan’s birth rate now stands at the rock bottom .87 children born per woman.


Young Adults Choose Childlessness

All of these articles were published just in the past month or so. The composite picture they paint is a startling one. It seems that after decades of demographic catastrophism in the form of dire warnings about overpopulation, the world is about to be (and in some cases already is) convulsed by social and economic shocks due to endemic, catastrophic depopulation.

While America’s demographic looks positively sunny in comparison to nations like Japan, South Korea, Italy, and Taiwan, in reality our country is quickly advancing down the same path as these nations. The U.S. birth rate has declined by 30% in 15 years, and now stands at just 1.64 children born per woman — well below the replacement level.

As in other nations that have seen anti-natalist trends, the trend shows no signs of reversing, in part because childlessness seems to be becoming part of the culture.

A recent poll of young UK residents is typical, finding that a startling small percentage of them have any intention of ever welcoming children. The poll of 7,000 people who are 18 to 59 years-old in the U.K. found that less than a fifth of them say that they are certain that they want to have children. It is true that another 30% indicated that they would “probably” welcome children. But still, the scale of desire is clearly tilted towards chosen childlessness.

In other words, it seems the reduction in birth rate in the UK (and elsewhere) isn’t necessarily due primarily (as demographers sometimes speculate) to some confluence of current economic or practical challenges, but rather because of a deep-seated desire to avoid children.

This isn’t to say that these practical factors don’t play a role at all. However, previous generations also faced significant economic uncertainties, often far worse than current generations, and yet still expressed — at a minimum — a desire to welcome children: a desire that would often lead couples to welcome children despite the often-unavoidable challenges.


Childlessness: “Cultural Degeneration”

Indeed, one of the great ironies is that the birth rate is often lowest in many of the wealthiest nations on earth. And not just the wealthiest, but also the most socially stable, in ways that many of our ancestors would have found unfathomably envious.

It is with bitter irony that one reads newspapers reporting, for example, that Italy’s birth rate plummeted after the 2008 crisis. The implication is that would-be parents simply can’t bring themselves to welcome children due to fears over economic uncertainty.

But while this may be a true evaluation of many people’s conscious thinking, one can’t help but compare the power of this paralyzing fear to the fearlessness of parents in many developing nations, in which economic conditions are far, far worse than anything experienced by ordinary Italians, and yet which are experiencing far higher birth rates. In many of these nations, one finds a positive joy in bringing large families into the world, even in the midst of uncertainty, in the awareness that there are few things more precious and fulfilling than family life.

This is, no doubt, why Pope Francis has been so “hard” on Italians, with their pets and chosen childlessness. “Let us not resign ourselves to sterile dullness and pessimism,” the Holy Father told a gathering of pro-family organizations in 2023. “Let us not believe that history is already marked, that nothing can be done to reverse the trend.” Some years previous, in 2014, Pope Francis spoke of the decision to replace starting a family with embracing pet ownership as a sign of “cultural degeneration.”  “An emotional relationship with animals is easier, more programmable,” he said at the time. “Having a child is something complex.”

Indeed, while the Holy Father has been lambasted by liberal groups and newspapers for “judging” or being “insensitive” to pet owners, it’s quite clear that in the remarks above he has put his finger on the pulse of the problem. The problem isn’t pet ownership. The problem is sterility. Not, of course, the deeply painful sterility of unwanted childlessness, which can even serve to open the hearts of a couple further, and even to choose the radical love of adoption — but a sterility chosen because of fear: fear of the wild, unpredictable ways of life, and above all of human life.


A World Without Children: Silent and Dull

There is nothing wilder than a new human life, endowed with an immortal soul and the gift of free will. To bring such a life into your life requires a fundamental fearlessness, a confidence, a courage, a vitality, which is the opposite of the “sterile dullness and pessimism” criticized by the Holy Father. One of the core characteristics of life is its wild and often-dangerous unpredictability, and no more so than in the case of human life.

But who would want a world without life, a world populated solely by inanimate matter? How dull! How sterile!

These societies that have chosen demographic suicide are characterized by the eerie emptiness of the schoolyard and the monotonous predictability of so much of adult human life. In such societies, there is no rambunctious play, no unexpected laughter and hilarity. Instead, there is work, and taxes, and the perfectly well-planned life aiming towards a comfortable, predictable retirement, and all at the cost of a deep silence in the heart of the home where laughter and life should be.

It isn’t worth it. But if we don’t heed Pope Francis’ warnings, many developed nations, including the United States, will find out too late to do anything about it.

As president of Human Life International, Fr. Boquet is a leading expert on the international pro-life and family movement, having journeyed to nearly 90 countries on pro-life missions over the last decade. Father Boquet works with pro-life and family leaders in 116 counties that partner with HLI to proclaim and advance the Gospel of Life. Read his full bio here.

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  1. David Prentis on February 2, 2024 at 11:06 AM

    The cause of the problem is universal contraception. It leads to universal marriage breakdown, a negative relationship towards having children and hence to universal abortion.
    After we married, we used the pill. I was a busy Protestant minister of religion in Germany at the time. (We have since become Catholic.) My wife was unhappy and made comments about divorce. Then we discovered the Sympto-thermal-method of Natural Family Planning (NFP). My wife said, “If it works for others it will work for us! I am not going to take any more pills!” I realised that this was not a matter for discussion and hoped that the method would work, which it did. It led to a radical improvement in our marriage relationship.
    Later we moved to Britain (my country) and adopted the CCL approach, now known as the Kippley-Prem method. We have four sons, born at intervals of 3 or 4 years (planned), and would have had more, but it was no longer possible.
    After the Russians withdrew from Eastern Europe we moved to my wife’s country, the Czech Republic, and founded branches of CCL in the Czech and Slovak Republics.
    I have written a book – The Contracepted Society – explaining how universal contraception leads to universal abortion and universal marriage breakdown, which I can send to anyone who is interested as a PDF file.
    To fight meaningfully against abortion it is necessary – a conditio sine qua non – to fight against contraception!

  2. Matthias Kaup on January 30, 2024 at 12:05 PM

    Interesting article but its core point is not the problematic performance of the Holy Father but the fundamental truth behind his actual warning. Whatever he might have done the past years and still is doing this warning is essential and undeniable. And we have to promote this essential truth lucidly underlined by Father Boquet in every helpful context. I try to present this truth to my students in appropriate situations in the hope that it will serve them in all the confusion created at public schools by constant overemphasis on rampant sexuality.

  3. Sylvia Kendall on January 30, 2024 at 12:20 AM

    I think the Pope has finally reached a place where the prophesied change of heart is occuring. He is realising that what he has been promoting is wrong and is probably now doing his best to reverse it. However, it may be too late. It’s just not possible to indoctrinate whole generations then expect them to suddenly reverse course when for so long, they have been denied much meaningful Catholic teaching. I am not implying that the Pope is the only person responsible for the current situation. It is the culmination of many years of erroneous thinking and teaching. Now it’s like trying to turn a supersized ship! It can’t be done quickly, unless of course, there is Divine Intervention. I pray that the Pope does continue to preach genuine Catholic teaching and morals and stops his catastrophic charge down the road of modernism which leads to nothing but misery and damnation. I pray also that enough people will realise the peril we are in and change their own thinking returning to the Real Magisterium of the Church and the eternal teachings of Christ.

  4. Anne B. on January 29, 2024 at 7:31 PM

    Sadly, many of the younger generation have been indoctrinated into the myth of overpopulation – and told to “stop at two.” Now they’re being told that “manmade climate change” means they shouldn’t have ANY children “for the good of the planet.” Recently I debated a person online who called me a “climate denier,” NOT because I said (as some have) that climate change is a hoax – I know climate has been changing since the world began! – but because I expressed skepticism that it’s manmade. With young people being brainwashed in this way, it’s no wonder they’re afraid to have kids!

    Hoping & praying that our faithful Catholic schools (yes, there are some) will counter these lies and encourage their students to have large families.

  5. Diane Trombley on January 29, 2024 at 3:56 PM

    The pope might have a greater impact if he reminded Joe Biden that abortion contributes to depopulation and someone who claims to be a practicing Catholic should not be promoting abortion as a foundation for his candidacy

  6. Sheryl Temaat on January 29, 2024 at 2:47 PM

    Father, the Pope has been busy teaching that sex is for recreation. His comments on population are to direct people’s attention away from what he really promotes. When have we heard that birth control, sterilization, abortion leading souls to Hell?

    People will not do the hard stuff (although I have no idea why having children is distasteful to them) if there are no compelling reasons.

  7. Francis James McManamy on January 29, 2024 at 2:17 PM

    How are we supposed to believe that Pope Francis is really concerned about this when he gives awards to notorious abortionists and supports globalist anti-life organizations? Sorry, I am not buying it. Francis goes back and froth from heterodox to orthodox positions to keep the heat off, when convenient. I will continue to pray for him.

    • Margaret Erickson on January 29, 2024 at 5:20 PM

      The previous comments point out the tendency of Pope Francis to speak with forked tongue. The warnings would be more likely to be heeded if he did not fail to chastise Biden and other pro-abortion politicians around the world, fail to address the immorality of homosexual relations and reward pro-abortion advocates with attention and positions–that is very true. But he’s still speaking truth here. The real problem is that people don’t follow hypocrites. Francis acts as if he has no faith. He needs the prayers of each and every Catholic.

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